And so it ends…
The quartet looked at one another in confusion. "We do?" they asked. Then once again in unison, "Stop that!"
Hermione waved her arm like a referee. She pointed at Ron first. "You first."
The giant blushed and seemed to develop a stutter. "I-uh-well-I-Harry?"
Harry pointed at himself as if to say, 'Who me?' "Well I-um…Neville?"
"That bloody Bulstrode is going to kill me!" Neville shouted. Ick jumped in Hermione's arms, but settled quickly down to watch the show.
Neville's arms waved wildly to emphasize his seriousness and Ron gasped, "Neville! You swore!"
"You'd be swearing too if you had Millicent C. Bulstrode, esquire, breathing down your neck!" Neville retorted, though his volume was somewhat less booming.
Hermione looked at the clearly agitated boy and briefly wondered if women really could be called 'esquire' before she refocused and shifted closer. "Now Neville, let's be reasonable-"
"Reasonable?" Neville squawked. "Reasonable? There is no such thing as reason anymore! Millicent's killed it! Dead!" He jerked off his tie and held it up, a wild glint in his eye. "You see this? It represents reason. And this is what she's done to it. Smoosh!" He crumbled the cloth viciously, and then threw it to the ground. "Splat!" He proceeded to jump up and down on the once proud Gryffindor tie. "Stomp, stomp, stomp!"
Hermione covered Ick's eyes quickly to save her from seeing the murder of noble Reason, while Ron reached out and yanked Neville up by the shirt collar and shook him like a rag doll. "Pull yourself together, man!" he shouted at the smaller boy, adding a slap for good measure.
Neville took the hit like a champion, but did have to shake his head to clear out the stars. "Thanks?" he murmured dazedly.
Ron released him with a friendly pat on the back. "Any time, mate."
Hermione looked on in concern, trying to contain a restless Ick, who wanted to get to Harry for some reason. "Are you ok, Neville?"
"I think I am." He smoothed back stray hairs nervously, which did about as much good as trying to convince Hagrid that dragons were ugly.
Hermione eyed Harry, who had managed to ease just that much closer during Neville's…outburst. "Who are you protecting? Us or you?" she whispered suspiciously.
He grinned, unrepentant. "Me."
Hermione sniffed, holding Ick away from Harry's corrupting influence. Chivalry really was dead, she thought. "Jerk."
Harry held up his hands in mock surrender. "Hey, I know who's the strongest and I'm not afraid to admit it," he teased.
Before Hermione could reply, Neville cleared his throat and drew everyone's attention back to himself. "So who's in?"
Ron was confused. "In on what?" he asked.
Neville cast him a look that clearly stated that Ron was being slower than usual. "The plan to bump off Bulstrode, of course." He was completely serious, as though four Gryffindors and a mini-Malfoy discussed death and destruction every day during tea time. Really, Hermione thought, Neville was a bit stressed, but that was a bit-
Harry leapt onto the bench and flung his arms around Ick and Hermione. "Hold me, Mummy, I'm scared!" he laughed. Hermione's breath left her in a whoosh when they collided.
The wretch weighed a metric ton! "Harry-"
Hermione was momentarily distracted by Ron snatching Neville back up into his grip and shouting, "Who are you and what have you done to Neville!" He was about to repeat his earlier shaking to somehow make the alleged Polyjuice wear out faster when Neville kicked him in the shin. Hard. Ron let out a howl to wake the dead, immediately releasing the other boy. And if things couldn't get stranger, Neville suddenly launched himself at Ron in a tackle style that would have done an American footballer proud. Hermione lurched back to avoid being squashed. She misjudged the momentum, however. To her horror she started falling backwards. She was going to hit the floor!
She wrapped her arms protectively around Ick. At the last second before impact, Harry flung himself around them, managing to get between her and the floor. So instead of cracking her head open and hurting Ick, the pair landed on a much softer surface. Hermione looked up into Harry's eyes. "Are you hurt?" he asked in concern.
Maybe chivalry had a few more years left to live. "My hero," Hermione said softly.
Harry grinned. "It's what I do," he replied.
Neville was pummeling Ron with all the ferocity and desperation of someone who had just been pushed too far. "Why are you always pushing me around? Well, take that! And that! And that!"
"Neville's gone barkers," Harry observed. Hermione noticed that he made no move to stop the 'fight'. And he held her too tight for her to do anything.
Ron was holding his hands up against the rapid, but mostly ineffectual punches. Neville was upset and angry, but not really at Ron. Just the world in general. That didn't mean that Ron had to just lay there and take it, though. "If you don't stop this right now-"
"Hermione, stop moving your knee like that!" Harry cried out.
"That was for making me get into this crazy Future Parents Program and leaving me at Bulstrode's mercy and ignoring my pleas for help and slapping me-"
Hermione had had enough. "NEVILLE, STOP IT THIS INSTANT!" she shouted with all the authority she had in her little body. Neville froze instantly, arms poised and Ron glaring up at him mutinously. "You," Hermione continued, "are scaring Ick." Which wasn't true. The little girl had too much of her father in her, Hermione thought with a roll of her eyes. Ick was laughing and enjoying the chaos around her.
She pushed Harry away. He resisted playfully by latching on to Ick. The baby had no problem with that, holding out her arms in recognition of a fellow troublemaker. Hermione sighed. "Oh, all right." Harry chuckled and Ick giggled in triumph.
Hermione stood up and smoothed her skirt. "Now then. First we need to find out what our respective problems are, and this time no evading the issue. We've heard Neville's, er, issue. Let's hear…Ron's."
Ron pushed Neville off of him in annoyance. "Well, you see, it's about Pansy, and lately she's been giving me strange looks." He sat up while he babbled on, "I don't want to go into my common room because I'm afraid to see her and today-"
"Ron, I'm sorry," Hermione interjected. "I don't condone any sort of 'bumping off', whether it's Millicent or Pansy." Ron stood up and looked put out. "I don't want to kiss-I mean, kill her!"
Harry gaped from his spot on the floor, Ick sitting in the cradle of his Indian-style position. "You wanted to kiss Parkinson?"
"I, well, that is-Oh sod it, yes! Yes! I want to kiss Pansy Parkinson!" Ron shouted loud enough to alert the entire school. "And that's not all! I want to-" Harry clapped his hands over Ick's ears and Hermione covered her own. Ron scowled and leaned in close. "Date her," he emphasized.
Hermione lifted her hand and looked up at him in relief. "Oh, is that all?" Well, that was much better than what she'd thought he was going to say.
Ron put his hands on his hips and rocked back on his heels, grinning slyly. "Well, no," he admitted. "But that's all part of dating." He ignored Hermione's narrowed eyes. "So, what do I do about it?"
"Hell if I know," Harry piped in. "I've got the same problem."
"You want to date Pansy too? Sorry, mate, she's taken." Ron crossed his arms and clearly thought that was that.
Harry quirked an eyebrow in exasperation. "Not Pansy, Luna. I think I want to date Luna."
"Pansy, if you don't wipe that silly grin off your face right now, I'm going to vomit. Swear I will," Draco said in disgust. "And stop hogging the peephole, I want to see Hermione."
Pansy moved over without a single protest. Just went to show how far gone the poor girl was. "Did you hear that?" she murmured for the third time. "Weasley wants to date me."
Oh, the horror. Was there no end to the atrocities perpetuated by this infernal program? Weasley was going to get lucky before him, and all that lummox had to do was say a few ineloquent words to seal the deal. Draco had been saddled with fatherhood (love Ick though he did), stripped naked twice, almost drowned, had fought the Lamia, three Keres, and a particularly loathsome rendition of the Dark Lord himself.
And what had he gotten for his effort? A few kisses. The first one he'd stolen and she'd fainted. The second and third had been pressed to his forehead while he was possibly facing death. Since none of those kisses had led to any sort of meaningful aftermath, they therefore didn't count. He needed something more. A kiss she initiated would be nice. Sort of let a bloke know he was making progress or something.
He rolled his eyes and leaned closer to the peephole. His cheek found itself unrepentantly pressed against another that belonged to one Luna Lovegood. Pansy voluntarily bursting into the sick ward had been surprising enough. Everybody knew she despised infirmaries. But the fact that she'd been dragging Luna Lovegood right behind her had been the thing that had made Draco sit up and take notice.
No, she hadn't wanted him to kill Luna. No, she wasn't practicing her kidnapping skills and holding Luna for ransom. She rather liked Luna, actually. Turned out that somewhere along the line Pansy had actually struck up a conversation with Luna. She had refused to discuss particulars, only saying that Luna had been coaching her with the twins.
To make a long story short, Potter wasn't as subtle in his spying, as he would like to think.
"When are we getting to the good stuff?" he muttered irritably. He felt Luna smile dreamily.
"Now," she sighed.
Harry was pouring his guts out. If Ron could do it…"I never saw it coming," he confessed. "I never noticed her like that before, but lately I've been-I like how she acts with her baby. But she's really pretty too, and I like to hear her laugh. I want to get to know her better, find out what makes her tick-"
He was cut off when Ron held up his hand, "Do you want to kiss her?"
Hermione's mouth dropped open, "What has that got to do with-"
"Yes," Harry stated seriously. "And if you don't know what that has to do with anything, Hermione Jane, then Malfoy isn't doing it right."
"I'm going to kill that little sodding-"
Hermione had just been delivered the proverbial sideswipe blow. She whipped around to confront Harry. "How was I supposed to know you aren't to hold your breath!" Draco had told people about that? Hermione blushed so hard she was sure she would remain permanently red. To think that she'd been contemplating feeling something for that low-down, sneaky, snarky…kiss stealer!
Ron choked. "You held your breath?" he gasped, laughter welling up. "Oh, that's classic!" He kept picturing it over and over again in his head. Every time he imagined Hermione turning purple from lack of oxygen, it got funnier. He had to hang on to Neville to keep himself upright. Even Neville seemed to be having a hard time keeping his composure, although he was doing a much better job than his redheaded companion.
Hermione gritted her teeth, "Yes, as you probably heard, I did." Soon it wasn't going to be a matter of her ability to breathe, but Draco Malfoy's. Never before had someone inspired Hermione to such homicidal tendencies so often and with such little effort.
Harry shook his head. "I didn't hear anything. I thought I was making a joke." He grinned. "So…Malfoy kissed you, did he?"
Drat. She'd walked right into this. Hermione mentally pardoned Malfoy and tried to gracefully bow out of the conversation. Suddenly she wasn't feeling quite that desperate to sort out her feelings anymore. She was intelligent. She could figure this out for herself. Besides, given the situations these three had just described, this was not the place to find good advice on relationships. Hermione cleared her throat. "You know, it's getting rather late-"
Ron crossed his arms. "Spill." Laughter was still evident in his eyes, but he seemed more concerned with Hermione's sudden retreat.
Hermione considered her options. Ron Weasley could be the most stubborn human being on earth if he wanted to be. Hermione was free to match wills with him, but the effort usually left her drained. Besides, simply doing as he asked ran along the lines of what she'd originally intended to do this evening, anyway. "I strongly suspect that Malfoy fancies me."
There was a long moment of silence. Harry was contemplating the floor, trying to weigh the odds of Malfoy actually possessing feelings. Ron simply looked like he was trying to picture Malfoy as something other than a rodent, and failing miserably. After a moment of squinting at the ceiling, he simply shrugged. Harry looked down at Ick. Well, alright, so maybe Malfoy did occasionally experience tender emotions. Consider how he acted with the little girl. Maybe it wasn't such a big stretch after all.
"More to the point," Hermione continued, "I strongly suspect that I fancy Draco Malfoy."
Again nobody said anything. Harry and Ron looked at one another, each wondering the same thing-What were they supposed to say? Forget the bugger, he's bad news? That wasn't technically true. He had fought for their side in the war. More recently, he'd given the boys shelter from the dreaded Millicent. He wasn't all-bad anymore.
"Hermione," Harry ventured, "are you asking us for permission?"
Hermione's brow furrowed. "No."
"Then why are you talking to us about it? Shouldn't you be running off into the sunset with someone right about now?" Ron piped up.
Hermione scoffed at the mental picture. "Actually, I need to know how to make him go away."
Ron threw up his hands. "What is it with everyone and making people-?"
"I didn't mean physically! I meant…Look, it's just not the right time. My parents are still out there somewhere," Hermione sighed, looking away. "You know I'm only in school because Dumbledore forced me to come back."
Harry put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. "Because you're safe here. Not all the Death Eaters were rounded up. Lupin and Tonks will find your parents, Hermione. Have faith in them."
Hermione covered his hand and squeezed. "But will they find them alive?" she whispered back. "I can't just…throw away everything that happened these last six years. I don't hate him, but I can't help but wonder if these feelings I have for him are just part of some trick my brain is playing on me. Needing someone to temporarily replace my parents, to take care of me. Fooling myself into believing that it's all real, that it could work. I'm afraid that in the end, nothing will have been real, and I'll be left with just that. Nothing."
Ick, sensing her mother's distress, held out her arms to Hermione. Hermione complied with a little smile. She and Ick were getting along better and better with each passing hour. She rubbed her cheek against the top of Ick's head and sighed. "Such a good little girl," she murmured.
Ron stared at Hermione in deep thought. She was right. They had all gone through a lot during the past year. Life was far from returning to normal. Was he focusing in on Pansy simply because she was there? Did their close proximity create something that wasn't real inside of him? Was he tricking himself into thinking that his feelings could change so radically, and still last? That wasn't even considering the fact that he didn't know how Pansy felt about him. There was a good chance she would laugh in his face. That old familiar fear settled in on Ron's chest. That deep, abiding feeling that he wasn't good enough for something or someone. The war had forced him to face the fact that birth meant nothing, especially when one was sure that today just might be his last day. It wasn't his birth, or his abilities, or even his magic that concerned him now. It was the notion that maybe he, Ron Weasley, the big, clumsy giant with red hair, just wasn't good enough in Pansy Parkinson's eyes.
Ron didn't think that he could handle being told that.
Harry was thinking something along similar lines. Was he, too, using Luna as a substitute for something? Was he looking for a happy ending too hard?
Neville was wondering what everyone else was thinking about.
"I have an idea," Ron said finally. "We keep this conversation to ourselves. It never happened. We go back to the way we've always been, and once this Future Parents Program thing is over with, we'll start thinking about getting into meaningful relationships. Maybe by spring we'll know for sure what's going on." He looked at each of his companions. "But we've got to stay as distant as possible. We can't let ourselves get sucked into something and then regret it later. We have to be strong."
"That's going to take a lot of willpower," Harry said doubtfully.
Ron shook his head at his friend. "Come on, Harry, we can do it. All we have to do is stick close to one another. We'll keep each other going."
Harry and Hermione shared a look. Hermione shrugged a little. "It's worth a try." And they didn't have any better plans.
Harry squinted at her, still looking unsure. "If you say so."
Malfoy straightened away from the peephole, his jaw set, eyes glittering with determination, he looked at Pansy. All traces of her earlier giddiness had disappeared, leaving an icy seriousness behind.
Luna came to stand next to her. She looked somewhat less than pleased, but not to the extent of Pansy or Draco's emotions. She looked up at Draco. "I assume you have a plan," she said calmly.
"You're damn right I do," Draco replied grimly. "Are you in?"
"Ronald Weasley," the other Slytherin gritted out, "is never going to know what hit him."
Draco knew, she knew, that he was there. She pretended not to hear his approach while she told Ick the story of the Nutcracker Prince. Draco grinned at the arrested expression on Ick's face. Probably shocked at the blatant romance in the story. A little man who knashed nuts with his teeth for a living having a ballerina-to-be fall in love with him. It was laughable. He had no money, no name, and only a tiny cash poor kingdom that survived on candy.
It may have made more sense if there had been some sort of income…
"Is that all you look for in a man, Hermione?" he whispered in her ear. She jumped, but Draco was willing to bet it was because his breath had brushed her ear. He was very close to her, his mouth almost touching the side of her face. Getting into her personal space.
Hermione didn't look up at him. "I'm not looking for anything in a man," she replied calmly. She was a quivering mess inside, but he didn't know that. Or at least, she hoped he didn't.
Draco chuckled. "I didn't know you were that easy to please." He reached over the back of the sofa and tickled Ick under the chin. "Hey, baby. Don't let Mummy make you think that it's alright for you to marry just anybody. He has to keep you in style." He stood up. "I have to go to class, girls. I'll be back before you go to the tutoring session."
"Half of my players have come down with colds. The rest have exams. If they don't make the marks, I don't have a team. I switched with the Ravenclaws." Draco picked up his books, which were scattered around the common room. He came to a stop in front of them, grinning mischievously. "Goodbye, Hermione."
One moment he was standing in the front of her, the next he was kissing her cheek, and before she could blink he was gone. She looked down at her lap-where a single tulip lay.
Pansy looked up at his approach. "How goes it with Granger?" She pushed away from the wall.
Draco thought back to Hermione's bemused face. "Progress," he replied with satisfaction. "Are you ready for it?"
"Today is the day. Luna's already working on her part."
"Good. Hermione needs to see those two buffoons relatively content before she'll consider giving in. They've had a week to get comfortable. Now it's time to go in for the kill."
Hermione pretended to be reading a book with Ick. Her attention was not in fact on the text for once, but focused on the strangely fascinating scene in front of her.
"Hermione?" Harry said under his breath, "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
"If you aren't," Hermione murmured back, "then we need to get help, because I'm seeing it too."
Next to the book stacks several rows down, Ron was blushing boyishly at something Pansy Parkinson was saying. Two sets of eyebrows (Harry and Hermione's, Ick couldn't have cared less) shot up when Slytherin's Princess trailed a finger coyly along Ron's arm, smiling flirtatiously.
"Maybe we're misinterpreting it. Making it out to be more than it really is," Hermione ventured.
Harry latched onto the flimsy logic gratefully. "Yeah. Ron wouldn't forget the pact that quickly…"
As if he'd heard them, Ron suddenly shook his head as if to clear it. He captured Pansy's hand and seemed to be ready to step away. "Good Ron," Harry coaxed quietly, eyes glued to the scene.
Hermione added her own encouragements, "That's right," she whispered, "Just walk away."
Pansy looked shocked that Ron was actually disengaging from the conversation. She watched frozen, as Ron moved back. Just when Ron turned away and Hermione thought the danger had passed, Pansy seemed to regain her composure. She caught Ron's hand in a gentle but firm grip. He looked back, startled. Pansy reached into her bag. "Oh, no," Hermione gasped softly.
Harry was leaning so far over the table that all pretense of reading was gone. "She wouldn't!" he denied. "It's just not playing fair-she can't-!" Even as he spoke, Pansy pulled out her secret weapon, Ron's greatest weakness, the key to his downfall!
A cupcake. Drizzled in chocolate.
Harry was shaking his head. "No, Ron, don't do it-Oh, sod it, man! Show some willpower!" But it was too late. Ron had already been snared by sugary goodness, being led like a docile lamb toward the library entrance, Pansy on his arm. Harry's book slapped to the table. "We've lost him," he stated gloomily. "He's done for."
Hermione lay her own book down. "These Slytherin know more about our weaknesses than I had anticipated," she mused. She leaned back so that Harry could pluck Ick out of her lap and settle the baby into his.
"This is going to be tougher than I thought," he said.
Hermione couldn't help but agree.
"What's the plan?"
Hermione chewed on the inside of her cheek, thinking quickly. "It's time for me to meet Malfoy so that he can take Ick," she whispered to Harry. "I'm going to see if I can 'accidentally' run into Ron and Pansy before any real damage is done. Wait here for about 10 minutes and go in the opposite direction, just in case they went the other way." She started gathering her books.
Harry sighed. "Planning battles was easier than this," he muttered.
Hermione paused, looking up into Harry's discontented face for a long moment. "Harry, what's wrong?"
Harry rubbed his temple. "Oh, I dunno, Hermione. It's just that this bothers me somehow. The more we try to stay away, the more I want to get closer." He looked up at the ceiling. "Does that make sense? I know it's perverse. I mean, I could just be wanting what I can't have. It all sounds too perfect. There I was, wishing for someone who I could finally belong to and who belonged just with me. Someone to raise a family with. Suddenly I'm noticing Luna. Is it coincidence-"
Hermione's hand over Harry's mouth stopped the outpouring of words. He looked at her startled, while she leaned in, speaking in a very serious tone, "Listen to me very carefully, Harry. What is right for me or for Ron does not automatically mean that it is right for you. You have to trust yourself. Go with your instincts." She smiled as she moved her hand so that it stroked his cheek affectionately. "Because while there is such a thing as coincidence, Harry, I've learned that there's also such a thing as Fate."
She picked Ick up and turned to leave. Harry watched her go for a moment. "Hermione," he called out softly. She stopped, but didn't turn. "You might want to think about taking your own advice," Harry told her gently. He thought he saw her nod, and soon she'd exited the library.
Ron began to get the feeling that he'd been tricked. He looked at Pansy hard, forcing himself not to reach for another pancake. She'd brought him to a little hole in the wall charmed to look like a breakfast nook, complete with breakfast. In reality it probably wasn't much more than a broom closet, but she'd added an illusion of a window looking out on a sun-drenched yard that reminded him of the Burrow. The table and two chairs were cozy; the room comfortably furnished…and the door tightly closed.
She'd been watching him like a cat tracking a mouse for about five minutes while he was lost in the wonder that was cupcakes and breakfast, until he'd become so aware of her scrutiny that he'd began to assess the situation thoroughly. He hadn't come out looking too good. Actually accepting the cupcake might have been a wee bit of a miscalculation on his part.
Time to get to the heart of the manner. "What did you want to talk about?"
A corner of her mouth lifted. "Did I want to talk about something?"
"Don't play with me, Pansy. I've no stomach for Slytherin games. Say what it is you want to say."
So he wanted to go at it like that, did he? Pansy smirked. Refreshing. "You're a fool if you think I'm going to sit back and let you make all the decisions, Ronald Weasley," she said bluntly.
Ron's jaw went slack. Pansy waved away his astonishment impatiently. "Yes, yes, I know all about your little plan to ignore me until spring. The key to plotting, Ronald, is secrecy. Next time, don't conduct your conspiracies in a public corridor, hmm?" She interlaced her hands and rested her chin on the platform formed therein, regarding Ron seriously across the table. "I'm not going to wait around for you to come to your senses. You either decide now, or you decide never. Your choice."
"You're bloody joking."
"I've no sense of humor that I'm aware of, Ronald. A flaw of mine, I realize, but I'd like to view it as a balance to your…quirks."
Bloody hell, he hadn't expected Pansy to go on the offensive! He was completely unprepared for this. What to do? What to do? He had to stall! "I thought Slytherin were supposed to be sneaky," he hedged. "You're being rather forward about this." Where the hell was Harry or Hermione when he needed them? He was beginning to panic here!
Pansy's smirk widened. "We are sneaky, Ronald. According to Malfoy's plan, your little friend Potter should be running into Luna and that little blight on the earth Blankenship any moment now. Just in time to rescue her while I win you with my wily ways."
"Er…doesn't the word 'wily' imply underhanded aspects? Telling me all about it isn't exactly-"
Pansy sat back. "While I enjoy a good intrigue as much as the next Slytherin, I felt that tact was useless in this case. You were more likely to respond to a broadside question than anything subtle. However, I do believe in pressing my advantage." Now she was smiling with relish. "For instance, due to that little shot of Veritiserum I put in your cupcake, you are unable to lie to me." Ron went white. "And since we're being honest here, I feel I should tell you that the door is locked from the outside as well. Now," she purred, running her finger over his knuckles, "let's talk about us."
"Hermione," Draco greeted from the sofa. "How was your day?"
I've lost Ron to a Slytherin and can't find him, thanks. You? "Fine." Cautiously she approached, handing Ick over. Draco took the baby easily, blowing a kiss on the little girl's belly.
"How's my baby?" he asked playfully. "Look what I got you!" He put her on the floor at his feet, where dozens of blocks sat. Ick began exploring immediately, while Draco turned his attention back to Hermione. "Sit with me," he invited.
Not in a million years. "I really have to-"
He grabbed her hand and pulled. She landed with a soft thud. "-go," she finished.
"Sit. Talk. Relax," Draco commanded. He edged closer. Hermione inched to the side.
"What do you want to talk about?" she asked nervously. Drat, she'd reached the end of the couch!
"Oh, you. Me. Us."
Hermione gulped. "I don't know why you persist in-in-whatever it is you're doing, but I suggest you give it up." He wasn't even listening! Hermione almost leapt off the couch like a scalded kneazle, but decided that perhaps this was the opportunity she'd been waiting for. Taking a deep breath, she plunged right into the fray. "Has it ever occurred to you, Malfoy, that I just may not like you in that fashion?" It was a complete and total misdirection; as of course Hermione knew that she did in fact fancy him in that fashion, quite a lot. The key to dealing with Slytherin, however, was to never let them know what you were really thinking.
Draco smiled. She was just so cute when she fought the inevitable. He played with the cuff of her sleeve. "Occurred, considered, and then dismissed."
She picked up his hand and put it back on his own knee before retreating back into her little corner of the sofa. "On what grounds?" It really wasn't fair how the firelight seemed to be kissing his face. She tried to force herself not to follow the play of light across his cheek.
She must not have been successful. "You wouldn't be looking at me like that, Hermione, if you weren't attracted to me." He leaned forward, barely an inch, but it seemed to Hermione like there was nothing left between them. It was just him and her and the air they breathed together. She looked up into his face, eyes locked with his, unblinking. Draco's voice was only a breath above a whisper. "Like now, when you can't tear your eyes away from mine. You're searching for that connection that will verify that I feel the same about you," his voice turned husky, "as you do about me."
This time his hand came down on hers, interlacing his fingers with hers. "I do, Hermione. I do. I feel that shock, and that warmth, and that same drive to make us happy together. My emotions are on the same ride as yours, and that rush is so delicious that I just want to stay close and savor it." He brought her hand up, raising it to his lips and holding it there. Like he was drinking in her warmth and added it to his, Hermione thought dazedly.
"Now why," he continued, "would I want to give that up?"
Harry didn't mean to do it. Really.
There he was, innocently following Hermione's directions, patrolling the halls for his errant friend. He wasn't looking for a fight. Really.
But when Harry had rounded another corner, lost in thought, just in time to see Alfred Blankenship thrust his face into Luna's, spewing forth vile words that would have made even Snape cringe-Harry saw red.
He didn't even remember doing it. For the first time, he felt that all consuming rage that had engulfed Rona and Draco, felt that rushing need to destroy a threat, to forever eliminate that one who dared get too close.
Alfred, in the space of a blink, was against the wall and staring down into the face of a very angry Boy Who Lived. He felt that burning tip of a wand pressed against his throat. Harry actually hissed in displeasure.
Alfred Blankenship was a bully. He was one of the most dangerous kind-those who preyed only on women, who viewed them as second-class citizens. He hid behind a perfect mask that only slipped in private. He knew how to hurt with words and threats. Luna had been his perfect partner for the Future Parents Program. The little wench wouldn't say boo to a goose. Fight back against him? Ha. Alfred had grown comfortable in his rages, giving voice to anything and everything that came to mind.
He'd grown too comfortable, he realized as Harry pressed his forearm into Alfred's neck.
"Harry." Luna's voice was calm. "Put Alfred down."
"With pleasure," Harry growled. He opened his mouth to utter the incantation that would do just that, put Alfred down like the dog he was. By the time he was through, Blankenship would never utter words like that to her, or any woman, ever again.
Luna reached up and physically turned Harry's face to hers. "No, Harry. He's not worth it. Let him go."
"Harry. You don't have to save the world anymore." As calm as ever, Luna's voice cut through the rage clouding Harry's mind. His grip loosened somewhat.
"Are you sure?"
Luna nodded. "Don't worry. He'll get what's coming to him."
Harry was still undecided. "Only this once. If he ever threatens you again-" he squeezed Alfred's throat, eliciting a squeak.
Luna smiled. "Fair enough."
Slowly, so that Alfred understood that it was against his better judgment, Harry released Blankenship and stepped back. He glared death into Blankenship's eyes. "Watch yourself," he warned. He turned around, ready to lead Luna away from the scene. A blur out of the corner of his eye alerted him, but he was too slow. Alfred, enraged, had lurched forward, ready to jump Harry and avenge his humiliation!
Luna's wand pressed on that sensitive spot beneath Alfred's chin, forcing it up. "I wouldn't do that, Alfred. It's not nice." She looked briefly at Harry. "Please take Hazel for a moment?"
Hesitantly, Harry complied.
"Now, Alfred, I think it's time you and I had a talk. I don't like you. I never did. You're just a bully. Someone who doesn't bother learning how to love when it's easier to just hate. You can say anything you want to me, because in the end I have it all and you still have nothing. Your words don't mean anything to me at all. But when you threaten Hazel or Harry, or anyone else I love, Alfred, I start to get a little," she jabbed upward without warning, lips tightening when Alfred choked in reaction, "angry."
Harry looked on in wonder while Luna continued to back Alfred physically into a corner. "Now there are a lot of ways this can end," she continued in her distinct voice. "I like to be creative, and I like surprises, so I won't tell you exactly what will happen if you ever do something like this again, Alfred. But if you play nice, there won't be any need, now will there?" With a last little poke, Luna withdrew her wand and calmly sheathed it. "See you around, Alfred. Shall we, Harry?" She smiled pleasantly when she took his arm and led the bemused boy down the hall, leaving Alfred visibly shaking in her wake.
Hermione was saved by a knock on the portrait. The sound was so out of place in their world of connecting floos and secret locations that it demanded immediate attention. "I'll get it!" Hermione rushed out, leaping off of the couch. She opened the portrait to find…"Michael?"
"Not you again," Malfoy growled form the interior. "How did you find-"
"No time," Michael interrupted. "Hermione, one of the Weasley brothers is here. The one that works at Gringotts? He was going over the items recovered from Voldemort's castle before they were to be locked away in that triple maximum vault."
Now he had her attention. "Michael," she asked slowly. "What's happened?"
"He found your parents, love. We have to get to Gringotts straight away!"
Even as she sobbed in utter happiness, nestled in the protective warmth of her parents' arms, Hermione wondered how she'd never seen it. Her only explanation was that even with all her intelligence, she just hadn't been able to fathom the twisted mind of the Dark Lord. Tom Riddle, in all his forms, had always relished conquest. He enjoyed keeping souvenirs, mementos of his victims. It stood to reason, with his increasing power, that Voldemort would grow more cruel and skip the souvenirs…and simply keep his victims.
The black throne in Tom Riddle's portrait had had a real counterpart. Hermione remembered seeing it once herself. Little had she known that the jewels studding it were actually the transfigured bodies of not only her parents, but almost a dozen other witches and wizards. They had been symbols of Tom Riddle's victories, trapped in limbo while he gloated.
Almost a dozen people emerged from Gringotts that day, blinking in confusion, surprised that, for many, several months had passed. News spread like wildfire, and once again there was a celebration in the Wizarding World for another victory against the Dark Lord. It didn't matter that the villain had been dead for months. What mattered was that he didn't triumph even in death, as evidenced by the joyful families being reunited for the Daily Prophet, and in many respects the world, to see.
The world declared a holiday, and while her parents were rushed to St. Mungo's for monitoring, Hermione received special permission to take a bit of leave from school. Feeling lighter than she'd had in what seemed like a lifetime, Hermione raced back to Hogwarts to get her things. She would stay at the school over night before preparing her parents' home in the morning, and then retrieve them from hospital. She was unaware that at that very moment, Dumbledore was looking into his fire with a very grave expression on his face.
"Narcissa, something has come to my attention that demands discussion."
Madam Malfoy arched a blonde brow. "Have I ever mentioned how much I detest your 'serious' face? It means less fun for me."
"I think it's time to end the Future Parents Program."
"What do you mean, the experiment is over?" Ron asked incredulously.
"The experiment can no longer continue, I'm afraid. In our eagerness to give you a realistic experience, we failed to take parental instincts into account."
"They've become like our real children," Hermione elaborated softly. She looked down at Ick. The little girl was sucking on her tiny thumb, eyes growing more hooded as sleep stole over her. Hermione cuddled her closer, taking comfort in the arm Draco wrapped around her waist.
Dumbledore nodded. "Yes. While we have hopes of continuing the program at a future date, with appropriate adjustments to be made, I'm sorry to say that this stage must come to an immediate halt."
"How soon?" Harry asked.
"Tonight. When midnight comes, the children will return to their original states."
"You can't do that!" Everyone looked at Pansy, who had her jaw set determinedly and glared at the Headmaster. "I won't let you."
"I'm sorry, Miss Parkinson. There is nothing I can do." Dumbledore sighed. "It must be done."
Pansy stepped forward, fully intending to open her mouth and rail at Dumbledore viciously, when a voice made her grind to a standstill. "Don't, Pansy!"
She whipped around to face Ron, gaping. "What?"
Ron looked back at her, grim. "He's right." He took a breath. "Dumbledore is right."
Pansy shook her head in disbelief. "I don't understand. Don't you want them?" Her voice was rising in pitch.
"Of course I do, but Pansy…they aren't real. I love them, but Patrick and Henry were never meant to be with us permanently. They're-" He choked a little here, but got it quickly under control. "They're dolls. Just dolls." He hugged a twin closer to him even as he said it.
Pansy went white. Her mouth worked, but nothing came out. Without another word, she left the room, rushing past Ron without a backward glance, even when he called her name. He turned to follow her, but stopped when Dumbledore called his name. "Remember. The spells that you used to bring them to life will not work this time." Ron nodded once, looked at Harry and Hermione, and then left to go after Pansy.
Dumbledore regarded the remaining members of the group with a tinge of regret. "I suggest that we all retire for the night. Make the most of the time you have left."
"Pansy," Ron snarled, "Stop it!"
"You don't want them at all, I know it! You would be trying your damnedest to save them if you did. Is it the fact that they're a part of me, too? Is that it?"
Ron was getting angry, but trying to keep it under control. "You're scaring them, and I'm not going to let our last moments with them be spent fighting." He put Patrick and Henry in their cribs.
"I don't know how you managed it, but you must have found a way around the Veritiserum. There is no way, no way you could-"
Ron spun around, grabbed Pansy by the arms, and kissed her. It was a quick, hard, passionate kiss, and all Pansy could do was stand there when he pulled away. He shook her a little. "I know what this is about, alright? But I'm hurting too." He didn't bother to hide the anguish in his voice. "I'm hurting, too…"
All the fight left Pansy. Her shoulders drooped. "Oh, Ronald." Standing on tiptoe, she clasped her hands behind his neck and offered all the comfort she could.
Multiple sets of eyes watched the time passing that night. No one spoke, but tried to go about normal activities like bath time and dressing for bed. Cribside vigils began the moment the babies went to bed, which they did with uncharacteristic ease.
Sitting on either side of the crib, Draco and Hermione stared at Ick, dressed in her tiny pajamas. They felt each slow breath she took with their hands, which lay over her little belly.
Pansy and Ron sat on their sofa. The twins lay in their arms, pressed between them as they hugged one another. They heard the ticking of the clock clearly in the silence, barely daring to breath.
Harry, Luna, and Hazel were outside in the little courtyard. It was where Hazel liked to be the most, Luna had said. They sat on the grass, ignoring the damp, Hazel blissfully asleep in the baby carrier between them. Luna hummed a lullaby softly, rocking the carrier.
Hermione began to shake. Draco captured her hand and held it tightly over Ick's sleeping form, never losing contact. Tears burned his eyes, but he refused to blink.
Pansy and Ron held each other as close as two humans could get, heads pressed together, watching.
Luna reached the end of her lullaby.
It happened softly. Little lights, like pixies, formed over the babies' heads and slowly drifted down. They spread out over the skin, and in bare moments faded away.
Leaving only a doll behind.
Hermione covered her eyes with a hand, cheeks wet. Draco put his head in his arm, letting his own tears fall. They never let each other go.
Ron hugged his family close.
Harry gathered Luna up, who calmly lay her head on his chest and watched the baby carrier rock itself a few more times before coming to a standstill.
Hermione stood, one foot in, one foot out of the carriage. Because her family's fireplace wasn't properly connected, she'd prepared to take the train home. Everything was read to go…Except for her.
This morning she couldn't wait to get away from Hogwarts and the pain of missing Ick. She'd wanted nothing more than to get into this carriage and ride away from it all. But now that the moment had come, she could not make her body fully enter the vehicle. It felt too much like running away.
So she stood there, frozen in thought. She couldn't shake the feeling that there was something more at work here than she wanted to admit.
Intellectually, she knew Dumbledore had made the right decision. Love Ick as she did, Hermione realized that she wasn't ready to be a mother. She would not have done Ick justice. The fact that Ick had never truly been meant to be more than temporary, was a blessing, in a way. She would always, always miss Ick. Hermione would always be grateful to the little girl that never lived, for showing her just what Hermione had been hiding from. So why, knowing all of that, was she still overcome with the urge to run as fast as she could?
To stay meant facing Draco without Ick as a link between them. She would be taking a chance that without Ick, whatever was between them would disappear. Hermione was afraid-
"Hermione," he said in his deep voice. The smile that crossed his face when he said her name was small, but held such pleasure in it. Like he was genuinely happy to just see her. Her heart skipped a beat unexpectedly. He descended another step, and of their own volition, Hermione's feet moved to match his, ascending a step. Had his eyes always been that color? Somehow she'd known it, had stored the information away in her brain, but never before had she appreciated just how multifaceted those orbs were. Had they always made her feel this warm?
Another step from both. He was saying something Hermione couldn't hear over the quickening of her pulse. It may have been something important. She didn't know, couldn't make herself pay attention. She felt spellbound, captured by some quality in his face that she'd never noticed before, but she was sure had always been there. Another step. They were getting closer. She watched in fascination as a furrow formed in his brow, at what she sure was a dumbstruck expression on her face.
Hermione knew he must be wondering what had come over her. She didn't quite know herself. There was nothing out of ordinary in the moment. All he had done was walk down the stairs as he had down a thousand times before. It wasn't the first time that she had been at the foot, watching his approach. Sometimes she had felt anger, others dread, and still other times she had regarded him with a mild sort of annoyance, usually attributed to a gnat buzzing around one's head. Never, never had there been this peculiar thumping of the heart, rushing of the blood, or fogging of the mind that prevented any real, rational thought from freely flowing.
Draco had stopped on his step, meaning only three or four separated them now. "Hermione?"
Like a magnet, he drew her. A feeling rising inside, making her heart swell, her lungs constrict. "Do you love me?" she asked breathlessly. Tingling in her arms, fingers clenching in reaction.
It was Draco's turn to look dumbstruck. "What?"
"Do you love me?" she repeated. "Please. I need to know, Draco." It sounded dramatic, but in that moment Hermione felt like her entire future depended on his answer.
He, Draco Malfoy, cocked his head at her quizzically. "Of course I love you, Hermione. I've been trying to tell you that for ages. You just never heard me."
Something that tasted suspiciously like laughter, like joyful giddiness, rushed up her throat. One more step, and suddenly the rubbery feeling in her legs disappeared. The next step she took was quicker; the one after that even more so, and on the third Hermione let the onslaught of emotion take control. She launched herself up in that last second, throwing her arms around his neck, when he caught her with a surprised exclamation. He fell on his bum. "Hermi-!"
Her lips connected with his.
Right there, in front of everyone in Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that just happened to be making their way to the morning meal, Hermione Jane Granger kissed the daylights out of Draco Black Malfoy. The blond young man, while visibly shocked, had the presence of mind not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and so he let Hermione Granger have her way with him.
She drew back abruptly. After a minute, Draco realized that his eyes were still closed. Slowly, he opened them, looking up into Hermione's grinning face. Had that really just happened? He bit his bottom lip, testing it. It felt like she'd just kissed him, but why…? "Draco Black Malfoy," she suddenly said, her voice loud enough to carry over the crowd below, as silent as they were, "I'm in love with you. I don't know how, and I don't know when, and there are going to be times when I wonder why, but I'm in love with you. You got that, girls?" she called over the railing to the crowd below. "Draco Malfoy's taken!"
Stunned silence. Then someone whistled from the back of the mass. It broke the baffled moment, and people started laughing and cheering all at once. Draco looked at the crowd, then back to Hermione. "What changed your mind?"
"Nothing's changed, Draco," Hermione replied softly. "I just realized a few things. It doesn't matter if I'm afraid or not. My feelings for you were always going to be there. Letting you slip through my fingers would have been not only painful, but pointless." She reached down and dragged him up, smiling into his face. "What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking," Draco murmured, "that I want another kiss, just to make sure the first wasn't a fluke."
"Snape is going to have a heart attack when he sees us." But she didn't resist when he wrapped his arms around her. In fact she pressed him closer with hands on his back. They stood toe to toe, on the same step, lost in their own little world.
"Don't worry. I'll pull some strings." His head bent, and once again lips met.
In the months that had followed, the Future Parents Program went through three more control groups, each refining the program to the condition it was being celebrated in these five years later. Hermione and Draco, as happy as they had been together, even with the inevitable spats that occurred, had looked on anxiously. Ick, however, had never reappeared. They had supposed that it had only been due to their unique combination of genes that the little girl had come to be. The chances of her reappearing, or perhaps even being born at all to them, had been monumentally small. They had resigned themselves to the fact eventually. Draco felt that their relationship had gotten stronger for the tragedy, rather than weaker.
Indeed, most of the original Future Parents Program couples (which sort of included Potter) were still together five years later. Draco had begun proposing to Hermione midway in their final term at Hogwarts. She had always avoided the issue until the day they had graduated. Draco had been utterly surprised by the gigantic banner unfurling minutes after the ceremony had ended reading, "Marry me, Draco!" Grinning like a loon and ignoring the catcalls, Draco had happily accepted.
Luna and Harry had married the moment they had graduated. In fact, all of the couples had had to run straight from one ceremony to another, barely having time to catch a breath. Draco had considered it the ultimate tragedy to find that Potter, that poor sod who wanted a family so desperately that it literally showed, had been diagnosed as sterile. Luna, always the calm one, had blithely informed Harry that he had nothing to fret over, their children would be arriving any day now.
There had been a tense moment there where everyone thought that Luna had finally gone round the bend. She'd sighed, gotten up to go to her desk, and returned with a proposal that had changed their lives. An adoption program for war orphans. With Draco's money, Hermione's intelligence, Ron's enthusiasm, Pansy's cunning, and Harry's notoriety, the program was sure to take off.
And it did. Luna and Harry were now the proud parents of no less than four children, with another arriving soon.
Ron and Pansy had married later that same year, only waiting because both families had demanded it. No one had been entirely convinced the relationship would last, but when Pansy turned up…ahem…in a delicate condition, well, Draco had never seen a wedding be put together that fast.
If it had been up to Hermione, Draco would have had to wait until they were 20 to get married. Something about the statistics of teenage marriage. Not buying that for a moment, Draco had worked on the girl until she'd finally given in and they had married on the one-year anniversary of the Future Parents Program. Draco considered it a matter of pride that on their one-year anniversary of marriage, Hermione had gotten pregnant.
They'd known that it couldn't be Ick. They hadn't dared to hope. In fact, they hadn't wanted to know anything about the baby at all, feeling that any baby they had would be precious regardless. So when Hermione gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Thackery, they'd been overjoyed…and surprised as hell when fifteen minutes later, Vivica May Malfoy had made her screaming entrance into the world.
Words could not describe that moment….but Draco still had a bruise from Hermione from innocently referring to his children (affectionately, mind you) as Ick and Ack.
The Great Hall doors flew open once more. Draco grinned. Speaking of….
Thackery Malfoy met the hundreds of stares directed at him with a little smile, hitching up the gigantic book (which was just full of pictures, but he liked to make up stories about them) underneath his arm. "Sorry," he said sheepishly.
"Thackery!" Ick called out. "Come meet the dragon Daddy told us about!"
Draco could feel the burn of his wife's glare all the way across the hall. He cleared his throat. Oh, he was going to pay for that one later.
Hermione Malfoy picked up her tawny haired son and made her way down the aisle. Draco was suddenly taken back to their wedding day, and the utter awe he'd felt that finally, finally, Hermione Granger was his. He smiled that familiar warm smile at her, the one that hit her right in the heart. The one she could never help smiling back at.
"Hello, love," he greeted softly.
"Hello, Draco," she murmured back.
There, right in front of the entire student body of Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Draco Malfoy kissed his wife.
Thank you, so very much, for reading my story. I have put so much into this fic for so long, and many of you have been there with me for almost a year as I did it. I truly, utterly appreciate all the kind words, reviews, and encouragements I have received over these past eleven months. I can't express my feelings as this story comes to an end. I have laughed, cried, and grown with Future Parents Program. I'm sad and yet overjoyed that I can finally present it to you, the readers, as a complete work. Thank you so much again, readers, and members of the Three Keys Discussion Group. The story would be nothing without you.
All my love, -Avari20
P.S. If you choose to review this and were directed here by a link on an awards site, I would dearly love it if you included the name of the Awards site in your review. Very rarely am I notified that the story is entered, much less if it won or not. Thanks so much!